Russian Chess in the Middle East - Part IV

Friday, August 31, 2012 |  Elizabeth Blade

This is the last of a four-part series on Russian maneuvering in the Middle East, and how it affects Israel. If you have not done so already, we recommend first reading Russian Chess in the Middle East - Part I, Russian Chess in the Middle East - Part II and Russian Chess in the Middle East - Part III

“The discrepancy of approaches [in Russia's dealings with Israel] is explained by the split inside the Kremlin,” said Zvi Magen, an expert specializing in Russia’s foreign policy at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). “The government is divided into those who call for tighter cooperation with the Islamic states (like Syria and Iran), and those – the so-called mainstream – who advocate good ties with all the regional players as part and parcel of Russia’s multi-vector foreign policy,” he argued.

As the Middle East once again becomes a ground for a US-Russian confrontation, Moscow views Syria and Iran as its last frontier, the fall of which would hurt Russia’s national interests and undermine any hope of restoring its past glory as a superpower.

That’s why, according to Magen, Russia is clinging not to the regime of Assad but rather to Syria as a strategically important location. “Determined to maintain its positions in the region, Moscow is willing to hold talks with all the parties to the conflict, be it the government or the opposition, while trying to reach a consensus with the West,” he explained.

Addressing the potential split of Syria, Magen is certain that if it does take place, Russia will try to establish ties with the various resulting cantons to promote its interests.

When it comes to Iran, Magen thinks that Moscow will not want to see a nuclear Iran at her borders because that would enable Iran to “…leverage nuclear weapons to position itself as a superpower with all of the geopolitical ramifications this has for the region, including damage to Russia’s standing."

Additionally, an atomic bomb in the hands of the Islamic Republic could trigger a regional arms race, which would destabilize international security.

Nevertheless, the pundit believes Moscow has an interest in keeping Iran's anti-American regime in power to use it as a “bargaining chip” in its negotiations with Washington.

Perhaps this is the reason behind the Kremlin’s growing concern with the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran since 2006. “The regime of US and EU sanctions could finally topple the government in Tehran, depriving Russia of an ally in its anti-western bloc. That’s why Russia is actively mediating between the West and Iran, trying to find a way out of the stalemate,” argued Magen.

Commenting on the Israel-Russia ties, Magen, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Russia in the late 1990s, argued that the two states have much in common.

“First of all, there is a natural affinity due to the strong spiritual, historic, cultural and political ties, coupled with impressive bilateral trade that was primarily achieved thanks to Israel’s big Russian-speaking community that bridges between the countries,” he argued.

Moreover, following the upheavals in the Arab world, Russia and Israel found themselves in the same boat, facing a common challenge: radical Islam. Combined with a looming Turkish threat -- as Ankara ‘bares its teeth’ to Moscow and Jerusalem amid attempts to pursue its hegemonic ambitions -- the two countries seem willing to consider closer ties on security, military and strategic levels.

“Even though Israel is indeed considered to be the client of the US, and it seems unlikely that the Jewish state would be willing to turn its back on Washington in favor of Moscow, one can't exclude the possibility that Israel might be interested in adding Russia to its circle of allies as part of Israel’s own multi-vector foreign policy,” concluded Magen.

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